Former Aspen council members react to Burlingame debacle |

Former Aspen council members react to Burlingame debacle

John Colson
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

ASPEN ” Some Aspen residents are unhappily absorbing the news about Burlingame ” and looking for someone to blame.

Recent news stories have revealed that building Burlingame, the city’s newest affordable-housing project on land just west of town, is going to cost nearly twice as much as expected, with an overall taxpayer subsidy nearly six times as high as originally predicted.

The controversy erupted in May when local media reported the discrepancies between what the public was told in 2005, and what is being revealed now.

But what about the Aspen City Council members who were sitting at the table in 2005, when the approvals for phase one of Burlingame were granted?

Former City Council member Rachel Richards, now serving as a Pitkin County commissioner, said she had talked with the city’s assets manager, Ed Sadler, in 2005 about the numbers in the brochure. Sadler no longer works for the city, and moved to Iowa in 2006.

“I can remember saying to Ed Sadler, ‘These numbers can’t be right,'” Richards recalled on Friday, adding that Sadler told her the numbers were an attempt to “compare apples to apples” when contrasting Burlingame against other, earlier housing projects.

Conceding that she should have pressed Sadler on the point, Richards said, “That wasn’t where I was focused … and that was a mistake.”

Instead, she said, all her efforts we going into debates of the philosophies and policy debates concerning the need for affordable housing.

More recently, city officials have admitted that a 2005 campaign brochure touting Burlingame Ranch, which said it would cost $74.3 million in total, with the overall taxpayer subsidy being $14.7 million, was incorrect.

In reality, city officials acknowledged, the taxpayer subsidy is now expected to be $85.5 million ” nearly a six-fold increase ” with a total cost estimated at $138 million.

The 2005 figures, which covered only the construction of the buildings but not land costs, infrastructure or other expenses, were said to cover all three phases of a project destined to contain 236 units. A city official reported in mid-May that a revised estimate included nearly $33 million in inflated construction costs and more than $15 million in “infrastructure costs” such as utilities and other items.

The revised estimate amounted to some $70 million that voters were unaware of when they passed the Burlingame ballot question in 2005.

Only phase one, with 84 units, has been completed so far. Another 152 are slated to be built as part of phases two and three.

City officials plan to ask voters this fall to approve up to $75 million in bonds to finish the development. But because the costs have increased so dramatically, elected officials acknowledge that voters might be reluctant to approve funding for phases two and three at Burlingame.

Meanwhile, Richards said that, as best she can recall, the debates at the time were of a more philosophical nature, as opposed to homing in on the costs. She said the main opposition group, Many Voices, was claiming that the subsidy would be $75 million, a number that appeared not to deter the voters from approving the project in a 2005 annexation ballot question.

Richards noted that the inflationary pressures included the staging of the project in phases, which pushes up construction prices every year; changes the current City Council made to make the project more green; and price cuts by the current council to make the units more affordable to ordinary workers. On top of that were the inaccurate numbers in the 2005 brochure, she said.

“This is a serious mistake … but I don’t think you go out and bulldoze the project,” or hold up future phases, Richards said, adding that City Manager Steve Barwick has taken “a good first step” in calling for a thorough investigation of the matter by a citizens task force.

Another one of the 2005 council members, Tim Semrau, said he could not recall ever being told by staff that there was a $15 million infrastructure price tag that was not included in the fixed bid that the council worked out with Shaw Construction.

Plus, he said, after he left the council in 2005, the city added nearly $12 million to the costs of the project by making the buildings more “green” and by lowering prices to make the homes more affordable to working people, thereby increasing the subsidy paid by taxpayers. On top of that, Semrau argued, the city paid out $35 million to buy parcels of land over the past year or so.

“The money was already in the bank,” Semrau said of that $42 million or so, which he contends could have gone toward Burlingame’s remaining construction costs. “Right now, without a bond or a tax increase, they can’t built phases two and three.”

He said the city should work to get a fixed-bid contract for the remaining two phases, and provide voters with clear explanations concerning the finances, before attempting to sell voters on the bond to build the rest of the project.

As for calls for Barwick’s ouster over the issue, Richards said, “I think ultimately the buck stops at the door of the manager and the City Council,” but any disciplinary action is “up to the [current] council to decide.”

In general, Richards concluded, “I’m sorry that this got by me … but I do not regret the 80 families that are living there, and the potential that holds for the future of Aspen.”

The others who were on the City Council in early 2005, including Former Mayor Helen Klanderud, Terry Paulson, and Torre, could not be reached for comment on Friday.

But shortly after the news broke, Klanderud said: “It was never my intention to deceive or mislead anyone.”

Klanderud, who was in office during the Burlingame votes of 2000 and 2005, after the numbers came out, also said: “I am perfectly willing to accept responsibility on any statements that misled [voters]. There was no attempt to not be transparent. I think an error is the best thing to call it.”